A review a day: <i>Elmer</i>

"It's because I'm a chicken, isn't it?"

Elmer is a collection of four issues that came out in 2006-08, but this is the first time it's been published in the States, as SLG decided to bring it to our shores. It's by Gerry Alanguilan, whom American audiences know because he's a fairly prolific inker, but Filipino audiences presumably know from the comics he's written and drawn. Elmer is his magnum opus, so far. And it's a mere $12.95!

On the face of it, Elmer sounds ridiculous. On 3 February 1979, something happened in the sky that bestowed consciousness on ... chickens.

Alanguilan plays to the silly nature of this early on, when the narrator, Jake Gallo, goes on a job interview. We see the world from his point of view as he wakes up, briefly checks the news, looks at a naked woman on the Internet, masturbates, rushes to his interview, and is told there are no positions for him. He gets angry at the woman interviewing him and accuses her of discrimination against him because he's, well, a chicken. Jake has some anger issues.

Alanguilan has some fun with this notion even when Jake returns home when his father, Elmer, has a stroke - we meet his mother, Helen, his sister, May, and his brother, Freddie, who's a movie star. A woman on the bus almost sits on him, and Jake gets in a huff because May is engaged to a man. This is all within the first twenty pages, and then Alanguilan throws a curve at us - Elmer is actually a very serious work, and Jake's disapproval of May's fiancé is just the beginning. He gets angry and reminds them that men used to eat chickens, and even though the world has changed, he doesn't believe men have changed all that much. Elmer takes a dark turn, as Alanguilan has eased us into a world where we accept that chickens are conscious and can speak and think rationally, and then shows us that this world is very much like our own - he wants to examine discrimination and prejudice, and using chickens as the minority is, frankly, brilliant.

When Elmer dies, Jake inherits his diary, and he gets to read about what happened after chickens gained consciousness, as his father was living back then (in addition to becoming conscious, chickens' life spans lengthened a bit, so that Elmer can still be alive in 2003 even though he was alive in 1979). Elmer was one of the first to start writing, so his memoirs are extremely valuable. We can easily read the comic as an allegory for any minority struggling to gain rights (that the chickens come to prominence in the 1980s makes it easy to equate it to gay pride, if you so choose), but what makes Elmer fascinating is that Alanguilan never makes it too obvious and easy - the characters remain chickens, after all, so their path to freedom is different than any other group's.

In other words, the chickens immediately start killing humans - if this sounds far-fetched, Elmer and his brother Joseph have been raised as fighting cocks, so they're fairly vicious. Plus, of course, there's all the slaughtering and eating, which the chickens remember. And the people are caught off-guard, naturally. Even after the humans recover and begin mass pogroms against the chickens, the birds fight back, as Alanguilan creates chicken terrorist groups that strike at humans. The proclamation by the United Nations that chickens are to be regarded as "human" and any crimes against them will be treated as crimes against men doesn't stop the violence, either - there's a bird flu epidemic that turns everyone against chickens again, and there remain people who just want to eat them. Alanguilan does a very good job allowing Elmer to tell this all through his diary, and he never moralizes about it or tries to draw any parallels with any other minorities - this is the chickens' story, and Alanguilan has imagined very closely what would happen if they did gain consciousness, right down to what bullies would do to their new chicken classmates. It's an utterly chilling book at times, as Alanguilan pulls no punches whatsoever.

It's also a story of overcoming discrimination - the Gallo's family friend, Ben, hides some dark secrets of his own, secrets that Jake learns about as he reads the diary. Ben is a well developed character - we're inclined to like him because when we first see him, he's Elmer's best friend. Jake begins the diary, when his father couldn't write very well, and misunderstands what Ben did back in 1979. As Ben tells him the real story, Alanguilan shows both sides of him - the frightened side that can't believe chickens are talking to him and the tender side that realizes chickens have a right to live and need to be protected. Elmer and then Jake want to fit Ben into a neat box, but they also have to understand the complexity of being human - as that's what they are now - and that things aren't always black and white. As Jake learns this, he's able to let go of his anger just a bit, even as we learn why he's so angry (and has a right to be). Elmer becomes a wonderful book about family and what it means, as Jake begins to understand what shaped his father and mother and how that affected his children.

Alanguilan's art is tremendous, as well. He never anthropomorphizes the chickens, because they're not people. They act and look like chickens, and although they wear clothing, they're still small birds. He does a wonderful job with the details of this world so that when the chickens show up, they don't look too ridiculous.

He's actually better with the chickens than with the people - very often the "acting" of the men in the book is slightly stiff, while the chickens seem to move gracefully across the page, even when they're brutally attacking someone. Alanguilan does an excellent job giving them personalities, too - Elmer is intelligent, Joseph is fierce, Helen is calm, Jake is bombastic - even minor characters like the terrorists are well done, radiating both rage and pride. Alanguilan also does a magnificent job with the surroundings - I assume he based a great deal of the exteriors on the Philippines, where he lives (the book's setting is deliberately never established), and it's extremely detailed and lush, giving us a very good sense of place, from the farm where Elmer hides out with Ben to the home where he dies. Alanguilan gives us scenes of wondrous beauty and switches easily to scenes of horrific violence, and he's adept at scenes where the violence is almost abstract, as the newly-conscious chickens try to process what's happening to them. Alanguilan writes in the afterword that when he started in comics, he quickly realized that his strengths lay elsewhere than drawing, which is why he began inking. Well, he's either lying or he's gotten a lot better, because his art in Elmer is excellent.

Elmer is a brilliant comic book - an original way to examine prejudice, in turns wryly amusing and terrifyingly tragic. It asks us to think about our reactions in not only an outrageous predicament, but also in everyday situations that might present us with some of the same dilemmas. Alanguilan has found a fantastic way to deal with a heavy subject without preaching or being one-sided. Elmer is definitely one of the best graphic novels of the year.

Tomorrow: What can Canadians tell us about war? Do they even know what a gun is?

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